Students that come from refugee situations are a unique group that differ from other newcomer students. Some may have fled their homes due to persecution and war. Others have endured long journeys through different countries, often without a clear destination. Some may have witnessed acts of violence against families and loved ones, or have been victims of abuse and torture. Many have experienced significant lapses in formal education.

Like other newcomer students, students from refugee situations will be experiencing the stressors of adjusting to a new country,  a new school, and learning a new language. Their families may also face systemic barriers like discrimination, Islamophobia and anti-Black racism.

It’s important for teachers to keep in mind that they already possess many teaching skills and strategies that will help these students feel safe and thrive in a new environment.

Let’s explore some ways teachers and staff can welcome and support students from refugee situations.

Learn the Background of the Student

When teachers know the backgrounds of newcomer students in their classes, they can determine appropriate program adaptations, understand their student’s unique circumstances,  and be better prepared to provide trauma-informed pedagogy if required.

What is the best way to get to know a newcomer student? If your board has an intake and initial assessment process, read through the report to get a sense of their background and a snapshot of their language, literacy and numeracy skills.

During class, ask the student to show you the places they have been on a map, or to show photos of their home country or city, using a translation tool if needed.

Invite students’ families to the schools and, if needed, enlist an interpreter to facilitate the meeting. Use the meeting as an opportunity to answer questions the family has about the school and education system in Ontario, and ask questions about their child’s educational background, interests, goals, and what language(s) they speak at home.

Support Learning Across Languages

Newcomer students with refugee backgrounds are often multilingual, arriving in Canada with oral communication and literacy skills in one or more languages. In many cases, these students will have emergent literacy skills due to interruptions in formal schooling.

Multilingual learners (MLs) will need program adaptations that will enable them to learn English, the language of instruction in their classroom, while also maintaining proficiency in the languages they already communicate with.

Providing opportunities for MLs to use the full range of their linguistic skills honours the cultural assets students bring to the school community, enables students to share their prior knowledge and experiences with their peers, and supports literacy development. Teachers can encourage students to ‘translanguage’ or use the full range of their linguistic repertoires by:

  • Informing the class/school community about the importance of home languages.
  • Making students’ languages visible in the classroom.
  • Making room for  home languages as part of the learning process.
  • Embracing languages, dialects and accents.
  • Providing access to multilingual resources.

Tools like Google Translate and Microsoft Translate support translanguaging and can be a lifeline for students who want to work alongside their peers.

Be Trauma Informed

Many students from refugee situations have experienced traumatic events, and that trauma may continue long after they arrive in Canada. Some students show many signs of trauma, some will show few signs, and some will show no signs of trauma at all. It’s important to keep in mind that as a teacher, you are not a therapist or a mental health professional that will treat the trauma symptoms of students.

You can be trauma-informed by becoming aware of the prevalence of trauma among students, what symptoms of trauma might look like, and how trauma can affect them. Creating a safe, supportive and regulated learning environment will be critical to supporting the transition of students with refugee backgrounds into the classroom.

To learn more about the signs that a student may be struggling with adjustment and trauma, and strategies for creating trauma-informed learning environments, please visit this page or check out this resource from the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Use the Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) Continua to Provide Appropriate Program Adaptations

Setting appropriate learning expectations for newcomer students who are emergent speakers of English is essential to supporting their success in school, and is mandated by ministry policy. The ESL or ELD Steps to English Proficiency (STEP) Continua is a Ministry developed resource that is very helpful for assessment and planning purposes.  STEP along with the Ontario Curriculum can be used alongside an initial assessment report (if available) and ongoing observations you have of the student.  Find out in your school and in your board what supports or staff or professional learning there is to guide and support programming for ELLs. Start by:

  • Determine whether the student will be placed on the ESL or ELD STEP Continua using recommendations from the initial assessment report and any other observations you have gathered about the student in class or communicating with the family. When a student in grades 3 or higher has had significant gaps or  interrupted learning, they should be placed on the ELD Continua.
  • Modify grade level curriculum expectations, when needed, using the appropriate STEP Continua. You may modify the depth and breadth of the learning expectation to provide the student with an entry point into the Ontario curriculum.
  • Support the student’s learning further by creating a culturally responsive learning environment and providing accommodations that facilitate English or French language acquisition. For example: use of visuals, translation tools, pairing with a peer that speaks the same language, multilingual instructions.

Your Work as a Teacher Matters

When you create a welcoming, safe and supportive environment for newcomer students, you are not just enhancing the learning environment, but playing a direct role in facilitating the success of some of the most vulnerable learners in the school community.


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